In Defense of the Endangered Tree Octopus, and Other Web Myths

8/8/08Follow @wroush

This March marked the 10th anniversary of the campaign to save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus from extinction. If you’re not familiar with the elusive tree octopus, it’s an arboreal cephalopod found in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic National Park west of Seattle. Every spring the creatures migrate from their lairs in the forest canopy to their ancestral spawning grounds in the Hood Canal; the rainy climate keeps their skin moist the rest of the year. But logging and suburbanization have decimated this gentle species’ habitat and reduced the breeding population to critically low numbers, leading some to argue that it should be placed on the Endangered Species List.

The Pacific Northwest Tree OctopusDo I need to add at this point that the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus is completely fictional? Apparently, I do. Lyle Zapato, a Washington-based author and Web publisher, invented the tree octopus in 1998. The creature is the star of an extensive and hilarious parody website that has, improbably, worked its way into the center of the debate over literacy in the Internet age.

The question is whether children raised on the Web can parse reality properly. And every so often the educational establishment and the mainstream media—most recently, the New York Times—drag up Zapato’s site as an example of the kind of seemingly authoritative material that gives the Web a bad name, by fooling unsuspecting young Internet users into thinking it’s for real. Edutopia, the magazine of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, recently denounced the tree octopus site as full of “pseudoscience” and “outright lies.”

To me, such indignance over the untrustworthiness of the Internet is both amusing and a little sad. Yes, the Internet is a fertile breeding ground for hoaxes and misinformation. Yes, children must be taught how to sort truth from fiction. But come on! Without the occasional tree octopus, the Web would be a far poorer place.

The thing about hoaxes is that the best ones make you think a little harder about why you believe what you believe. One of my favorite examples—and I have to admit that I fell for it briefly, about five years ago—is Dog Island, an archipelago off the coast of Florida where people supposedly send their dogs to roam free. “Separated from the anxieties of urban life, dogs on Dog Island live a natural, healthy, and happy life,” the Dog Island site claimed. In reality, that’s all Dog Island was—a spoof website. But it sounded so nice, especially to a dog owner suffering from occasional guilt about keeping his pooch cooped up inside all day. (Then I remembered that my own dog is such a scaredy-cat about outdoor noises that when we go camping he wants to sleep in the car.)

The tree octopus’s transformation from harmless spoof into poster child for the hazards of the Web apparently began in 2006, when University of Connecticut research Donald Leu used the site in a study of online literacy among seventh graders. Leu asked 25 students from middle schools in Connecticut to review Zapato’s site. Interviewed later, all of the students said they believed that the tree octopus was real. Few of the students, Leu reported, could pinpoint the obvious clues that the site is a spoof, such as the information that the natural predator of the tree octopus is the Sasquatch. And even after Leu told them the site was a fake, a handful of the students continued to insist that the tree octopus is real.

The Times cited Leu’s findings in a hand-wringing feature article two Sundays ago asking whether reading on the Web is really reading at all. “Some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading—diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books,” the piece said. The article’s conclusion from Leu’s study? “Web readers are persistently weak at judging whether information is trustworthy.”

But I think there are several other interpretations for Leu’s findings, not all of them so troubling. One is the possibility that education professors are persistently weak at judging whether seventh graders are pulling their legs. Another, more likely lesson is that kids are simply open-minded, and naturally receptive to far-fetched ideas until they have evidence to the contrary.

A rare sighting of the Pacific Northwest Tree OctopusAnd isn’t that the way kids should be, given how we’re inundated every day by scientific findings that are more fantastic, in their way, than Zapato’s fiction? It’s now known, for example, that at the center of the Milky Way galaxy there is a colossal black hole with a mass 4 million times that of our sun. Back here on Earth, there are fish that catch other fish using tongue-like limbs that have evolved into fishing reels, complete with bait. There are also microbes that thrive in the hellishly hot volcanic vents of the ocean floor. The Department of Defense, in the course of siting a network of low-frequency antennas for submarine communications in northern Michigan, discovered a single underground mushroom extending across more than 3,000 acres of land. Moreover, there is a mysterious dark energy that is apparently causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. You can’t turn on the Discovery Channel without running into half a dozen such jaw-droppers, any one of which is harder to believe than the idea that octopuses could live in trees. (Actually, one of the facts in this paragraph isn’t quite true. Can you tell which one?)

Wikipedia classifies the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus website an “Internet hoax.” But I prefer to think of it as an experiment with reality—a hybrid of satiric humor and science fiction, made more piquant by the fact that, on the surface at least, it purports to be true. Skillful hoaxsters mix and match factual references into new blends that are just plausible enough to tweak our sense of reality—and to underscore, in the process, how bizarre life really is.

* * *

I’ll be away on vacation in Alaska next week, so my next World Wide Wade column will appear on August 22. I’m mainly visiting family in Fairbanks. But you’ll be glad to know that I’ve also signed up for a three-day photo safari in search of the elusive and ferocious Denali Tundra Salmon.

For a full list of my columns, check out the World Wide Wade Archive. You can also subscribe to the column via RSS or e-mail.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Jenny

    I am a college librarian and I use the Tree Octopus web site and similar sites as examples to teach students how to evaluate the information they find on the web, and distinguish the good from the bad.

  • David

    Good article! I’m also a college librarian, and use the site as a humorous warning not to be taken in by slick packaging of information. But I can’t believe anybody seriously criticized it, as though the site was really meant to fool anybody! Information literacy is one thing; but apparently we have a long way to go on humor literacy as well.

  • Mark

    My 12 year old daughter was the only one in her class to spot the tree octopus site was joke. I was pleased to hear that her IT lesson was about such hoaxes – children do need to learn to critically question things, not just what’s online but also what’s in books, on television, in the papers and sometimes even what their teachers and parents tell them. My children do because they are used to me trying to trick them. I do so because I want them to think and not blindly accept anything that they read or hear.

  • johnny

    u no this is total bull right anyone can tell that its fake

  • http://xconomy.com alisha

    tree octopus r fake

  • Jayla

    I am a Middle School student, and in library and we were talking about how to find out details about websites.I learned facts about the tree octopus.I totally believed it was real but at the end are librarian told us it was fake.LOL

  • http://yahoo Sequoia

    our librarian told us this site is a total fake.i believe it.they ACTUALLY show a picture of an octupus in a christmas tree!dont believe this stuff. RUMOR!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://zapatopi.net Michelle

    The details they gave about the octopus sounded so real. Also most of the pictures. Until i read the part about its natural enemt being sasquatch! Thats just common sense that it’s not real.

  • Randy

    i think this is the dumbest thing ever u have to
    b stupid to believe this crap

  • butt

    um.. wats a sasquatch? lol

  • Marhta

    This is real! I have one as a pet. Her name is octogon! They are real! Just believe! Let’s save them!

  • Ifer

    Marhta, you are part of the problem.

    I’m guessing that the one about the mushroom is fake, since I was unable to find any other references to it.

  • http://asd Emily

    hey this is ssooo stupidly funny! how could you actually believe this all the photos are ssooo computerized and fake!

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  • http://xconomy lilly

    this is sooooooooooooo stupid

  • hndrxn cuz

    this tree crap ant funny at all all you people that thinks its cool you ant funny or cool and DC rocks o ya

  • http://Hndrxnrules Hndrxn

    Hey yu guys are such liers why would you try to put this on here omg its just spray painted stuff
    ugh you are so dumb to do this

  • http://www.xconomy.com Andrea

    cool but it is fake

  • buffy

    you moran !!! stop doing this stuff you ruining childrens minds you know that it freakin stupid a tree octupuss my ass!!

  • chris

    this is very funny

  • mike myers

    ha ITS FAKE DO NOT BELIVE IT ITS A RUMER!!!!!

  • MIKE MYERS

    ITS FAKE

  • http://xconomy Becca

    In response to Marhta- are you kidding me, thats the dumbest thing ive heard so far. I will not believe this crap that you and all these other weirdos are trying to say. First of all, all the pictures i have seen of this so called tree octopus look photoshoped!

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    I am really glad to see all the comments on this article from young people. (At least I assume they’re from young people.) But I think some of you need to read the article a little more closely. The whole point is that the tree octopus is a fake, but a fake that’s presented in a convincing package. The way I see it, the creator of the site (Lyle Zapato) intended it as as a pure joke on one level, but maybe also as a way to test the credulity of his readers and explore the boundaries between truth and fiction. So, stop complaining that it’s “fake” or it’s a “rumor” — that is the point!

  • Becca

    Wade- I do see your point, but if it was just a joke then he went way to far, im doing a paper in my computer class and i honestly thought it was real till i really started to look into it, i could have gotten an F because of his “joke” or watever he considers it, but yes i do see your point.

  • http://Jinnaty'sopinion Jinnaty

    This tree octopus is such a haox, it is so fake… and dum

  • retards

    hahahaha this is complete bullshit FAKE!!!!

  • ERIC OH

    TREE OCTOPUSES ARE

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  • lexi

    haha this is soooo fake

  • max

    wat so not real…..

  • MARK

    THIS IS A A TOTAL FAKE MARTHA YOU ARE SO STUPID

  • http://thedogisland.com jenna

    ths iz too stupid i mean lol how dumb do u think we r ?????????????????? lol lol these peeps should get a life a REAL ONE not a fake one

  • Bruce

    Stop and think critically for a little while! Obviously, the moneyed interests have a lot to win if the public is convinced that the tree octopus is fake. What better way to be sure it will never be put on the endangered species list, then to hoodwink the public into believing it never existed in the first place?? Land developers are itching to get these last pristine seafront properties. This campaign of fake “scientists” denouncing the tree octopus is much like the campaign of junk science to question global warming by the Bush administration. In that case, the point was to support the oil industry.

    If you follow the money, you’ll find the writers of articles like this are very well paid by land developers. Millions flows from slush funds and offshore bank accounts into the checking accounts stooges like Wade Roush, how do you think this sell-out paid for his trip to Alaska? Take a stand against the land profiteers and corrupt Republican politicians and support the Northwest Tree Octopus!

    PS. Photosafari’s for the Denali Tundra Salmon cost upwards of $10,000 PER DAY. The guides who know how to find them and the permits to enter the restricted part of Denali National Park are few and far between, including the cost of a bush plane to fly into the remote valleys where it can still be found. Ontop of that, just flying into Fairbanks costs thousands of dollars from the lower 48 (If you remember, Sarah Palin was criticized for flying to the lower 48 so much because she wasted lots of tax payer money on it).

  • Wade Roush

    @Bruce: Curses, I’ve finally been found out — by one of my own readers! I guess I’ll have to stop cashing those checks from the land developers who want to turn Olympic National Park in to an exclusive resort community for retired TV news anchors. (And if you believe that, I’ve got a few snapshots of the Denali Tundra Salmon to sell you.)

  • Bruce

    @Wade Roush: Yes, we need to get in contact about the photos you got on your Safari! I am compiling a book on rare and hyper-endangered species, those photos would be great.

    I’m glad to hear that you have stopped cashing those checks and come clean on the facts, it must be a real relief to finally be able to admit the truth about “their” nefarious plans for Olympic National Park.

  • tmsk

    this is bull crap u can totally tell tht is sooo fake

  • salvador

    LOL. im in my lab class and by reading the comments i finally figured out that it was fake! How could teachers make us do so much work on something that isnt real!?

  • mr thinkie

    THis is dumb if u really believe an octopus could live in a tree your a complete idoit *cough cough* salvador

  • Yogo

    you are stupid and this is rediculous!

  • Monster

    This is totally rediculous. If you believed this was real, you are clearly snd IDIOT.

  • Yuor Mom

    You need to stop this crap there is too much fake information on the internet already you are rediculous

  • http://............................... coocoo:p

    soooooooooooooooow not real!!!! but still kool!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!hahahaahahhhahahahahaaahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahhahahahhahahahahahhahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Susana

    Bruce is right. People pay a great deal of money to keep the existence of endangered species such as these quiet, as it interferes with their capitalist agenda. We must take action to save the tree octopus. I hope there are still enough left to save, especially considering the increasing predation by the carnivorous sasquatch.

  • Ignacio

    hahahahahahahaahaha…… this is so fake….

  • wqsaey

    While I do agree that the tree octopus is fake and the whole site is just a hoax, everyone should stop trashing it already. It was honestly meant to be a hoax, but people are just taking it way to far.

  • Ghost

    WOW these people are stupid to try to convince kids and other people to beilive this and Marhta ur a major noob

  • meeeeee

    this is soooooooooooooo dumb how could you not tell it was a hoax! my teacher made us research the tree octopus and half of my year 8 class thought it was real! when u look at the so called pictures of it, they look like they have be changed!

    p.s OMG WHNE I LOOK AT THE TIME I POSTED THIS FROM NZ IT SAYS IT IS 3 AM IN THE MORNING WHEN REALLY ITS 8 PM! HA LOL!

  • Jared

    your an idiot..balls

  • http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/ amber schafer

    retarded. get better real pictures :)